The bride's not here yet. The florists have finished draping the aisle in tulle and magnolias, the rabbi's ready, a few early-bird guests have even begun to trickle in. The bride was supposed to pull up in a limousine at 6, and it's 6:15. Where is she?
In the dark outside the synagogue, shivering in his tuxedo, Bill Bowen paces the sidewalk and tries to stay calm. Weddings create such pressure; there are so many details to remember, and nothing can be done over if it doesn't go smoothly the first time.
When the silvery limousine finally cruises up to the curb carrying the bride and her parents, Bowen looks relieved and determined all at once. Sprinting toward the door, he lifts the Panasonic to his shoulder and clicks on a 75-watt bulb. The father of the bride emerges and helps first his daughter and then his wife onto the sidewalk, where they all look into the lens and beam.
"Beautiful," says Bowen happily. He is only slightly less critical to the proceedings than the groom. He is the video man. THERE WAS PROBABLY A TIME WHEN PEOPLE ACTUALLY had to remember, sans audiovisual aids, what their wedding was like. But that was long ago. The modern wedding has acquired a Kodacolor afterlife. Each year hundreds of thousands of photo albums fill with familiar images: a chorus line of color-coordinated ushers and bridesmaids; the bride star- ing into a soft-focus candle flame. The flashbulbs have become part of the ritual.
When a few pioneer professionals in the late '70s started videotaping weddings, they didn't have the same weighty tradition supporting them. They encountered, as the technological vanguard so often does, doubters. The appeal of actually hearing the band play "Bad Bad Leroy Brown" while Grandpa approximated the boogaloo, of seeing the bouquet sail over the bride's head toward her still-single and mortified college roommate, wasn't always immediately apparent. Video -- didn't it make everyone look green-skinned? And require those inelegant orange extension cords? Wasn't there something inescapably tacky about the whole idea?
Some couples still think so. "It's bad enough that you have to perform at your own wedding," says one recent bride. "I didn't want my guests to feel pressured to perform too, to have someone stick a camera in their faces and have to come up with something witty. My mother would have been horrified." Some clergy are similarly queasy and banish videographers to the rear of churches and synagogues, which costs the camera people the really fabulous close-ups and makes them a bit sulky. But the professional wedding video is spreading nonetheless.
As Bill Bowen put it, while heading down Connecticut Avenue toward Northwest Washington's Adas Israel Congregation and the Silver-Trauberman wedding, "The Japanese gave me my job." The back of his Jeep Cherokee was stocked with at least two of everything: Panasonic D5100 cameras, AG7400 videotape decks, tripods, battery belts, spare bulbs of various denominations, wireless Sony lavaliere microphones ("the same thing Ted Koppel has clipped to his lapel").
It's this kind of New & Improved equipment -- increasingly lightweight and portable, able to shoot in lower light with better sound quality -- that has made wedding videos practicable. The rampant spread of VCRs on which to watch them helped, of course, and so did videographers' growing marketing savvy. The '90s bride (even now, grooms scarcely seem to figure in wedding planning) can have the big day captured by what the industry calls an "Uncle Charlie," a friend or relative, an amateur with a camcorder. Or, as with every other aspect of wedding prep, she can turn to the pros.
How many weddings are professionally videotaped? It's a category that includes $125 tapes by shoe clerks moonlighting with Betacams as well as elaborately edited multiple-camera jobs that go for several thousand bucks. Accordingly, it's a slippery stat. A 1988 survey by Professional Photographer magazine put the proportion at 30 percent. The president of the Society of Professional Videographers, in Huntsville, Ala., estimates that it's up to 70 percent of "formal, church-type" weddings, as opposed to justice-of-the-peace quickies. The editor in chief of Bride's magazine says she has attended few nuptials in the past couple of years without hired videographers on hand. All anyone can say with certainty about the wedvid business is, it's growing.
Bowen, for instance, is president of Suburban Video Recording Inc. of Silver Spring, which last year taped 175 weddings, plus assorted birthday parties, bar mitzvahs and anniversaries. It employs five videographers, including one beeper-equipped emergency backup in case the designated video man hits a tree en route to the ceremony. Bowen can personally shoot several weddings in a weekend, particularly if he lucks into a Roman Catholic ceremony on Saturday (bride's house at 9 a.m., ceremony at 11, finished at the country club by 5) followed by a Jewish one (which can't start till after sundown). Sundays he shoots more Jewish weddings, plus interfaith ceremonies and casual outdoor shindigs.
In the process, he has come to know a great deal about the anthropology and ethnology of the modern American wedding. He has learned that the typical Catholic ceremony averages an hour in length if it includes a Mass (35 minutes without), an average Jewish ceremony 27 minutes and a "mixed" wedding a brisk 18 to 23. He knows that brides over 30 don't care to hike their gowns to mid-thigh for public garter removals. He can get away with brighter lights on the dance floor during the group hysteria of "Shout," he has discovered, but no one wants 250 watts in his face while slow-dancing to "My Funny Valentine." He wears out three tuxedos a year. THE FIRST ORDER OF BUSINESS, AFTER ferrying the equipment into the sanctuary, is to wire the chuppa for sound.
Videographers and clergy engage in a fair amount of jousting over which parts of the ceremony the videographer can shoot from what vantage point and with what degree of light. Bowen finds that Orthodox Jewish rabbis, somewhat surprisingly, grant him the widest latitude, whereas Episcopal priests insist on the greatest restrictions, but there are always variations.
Rabbi Jeffrey Wohlberg, who will preside over the wedding of Patty Silver and Jeffrey Trauberman at Adas Israel, has forbidden both Bowen and the still photographer to approach the chuppa, the traditional canopy under which the ceremony takes place. Bowen therefore secretes one of his wireless mikes beneath the white satin overhead, so the vows can be recorded from the rear of the large sanctuary, perhaps 150 feet away. (The alternative, in ceremonies with no con- venient hiding place, is to wire the groom's lapel. The vows come through loud and clear, Bowen says. "The trouble is, there's a lot of breathing.")
Patty Silver's delayed arrival at 6:20 causes a few anxious moments: She's supposed to be headed down the aisle at 7, and there are several pre-ceremony shots Bowen needs to grab first. But he manages to work everything in. First, since he can't get near it during the ceremony itself, he lures Patty and Jeffrey and their parents under the canopy for some chuppa footage. "You guys look great; this is going to be a killer," he advises from behind the camera. And then -- these are, after all, moving pictures -- he tells the bride's mother, "Give her a kiss."
Actually, Suburban Video practices what Bowen calls "documentation -- how it happened. We do very little interaction with the bride and groom, the hey-look-this-way kind of thing." The pre-ceremony ketubah signing, in which the couple affix their signatures to the marriage contract, unfolds downstairs with the usual good-natured family joshing and rabbinic instruction, Bowen's presence making no discernible difference.
Still, now and then a video man's got to protect his shot. The bride's sister initially demurs when someone wants her tableside for the signing and calls, "Lisa, come over here, honey." When Bowen adds, "Yes, get over here, please," she gets.
For the most part, though, Bowen strives above all to be unobtrusive. That's why he's in black tie, with a pair of black Reeboks his only concession to comfort. All his equipment, even the stepladder from which he'll later pan across the dance floor, is matte black. "Social video -- you have to look as good as the groom's father," he says.
When the musicians launch into Pachelbel just minutes after 7, Bowen's briefly a bit of a dervish. Adjusting his camera to the candlelight (he hates candles), he shoots the grandmothers being ushered to their seats, the groomsmen, the bridesmaids in their forest-green Victor Costa velvet, the parents who march halfway down the aisle and then turn and wait to escort their children to the chuppa, the groom's happy little wave at a friend, the veiled bride drifting down in her Carolina Herrera. He dares miss none of this.
But once the ceremony begins, Bowen moves to the rear of the sanctuary and makes use of his tripod, which brings fast temporary relief from 25 pounds of camera, tape deck and battery belt. There is a brief flurry of excitement when the maid of honor feels faint, sways and has to sit down, but Bowen turns off the camera: It's flawless romanticism, not human imperfection, that he has been hired to record.
The greater challenge will come at the reception in the main ballroom of the Four Seasons Hotel, a major bash coordinated by Creative Parties. The bride's instruction sheet (every client fills one out) specifies that she wants Bowen to circulate a bit through the cocktail hour, that she doesn't need shots of guests at their tables (a good thing, since there will be 33 tables), but that she wants cake-cutting and bouquet-tossing coverage. He'll be there till midnight, easy.
On the whole, however, Bowen likes big, busy weddings: They make for better video. He had a fine time taping the wedding of a bank president's daughter on the paddle-wheeler Cherry Blossom as it steamed down the Potomac. Another couple got married on a golf course in York, Pa., and then flew off in a hot air balloon; weddings don't get more videogenic.
It's much harder to give clients their money's worth when they insist on being low-key. A few weeks hence, he'll be shooting one of those unpretentious affairs. "The bride and groom are very simple people," Bowen says sadly, packing his gear as guests exit the synagogue and head for the Four Seasons. "I'll be snoring through the whole thing." BOWEN KNOWS THE BACK WAY INTO the Four Seasons garage, so while most guests are still awaiting valet parking, he has his tape rolling, gathering "establishing shots" -- the three-tiered cake, the tables draped in green and copper, the elaborate floral centerpieces ascending on copper-tube bases.
It's a crowd of nearly 350, what with the groom's pals from law school (he's now a project manager at Boeing Aerospace) and the bride's associates (she runs a direct-marketing ad agency, Silver & Co. of Bethesda) and masses of friends and relatives and partners ("Just mention my husband's law firm," says the mother of the bride. "Silver, Freedman & Taff"). Even the practiced Four Seasons staff has to hustle to supply everyone with drinks and hors d'oeuvres during the allotted cocktail hour.
Servers in white toques are flipping omelets, slicing salmon, rolling Peking duck into pancakes. "You want to get shots of the food, but you don't want to show anyone actually eating," Bowen explains, threading his way through the crowd, panning down the buffet tables. "Don't pay attention to me, you just keep talking and having a good time," he instructs clumps of guests, but most giggle or wave anyway.
As parties wear on and guests have more to drink, weddings tend to loosen up considerably. Occasionally, post-cere- mony tiffs have led to clients' demanding that a certain family member be edited out of the final video; failing to include a certain family member, on the other hand, can also land a video man in hot water. Other local wedding videographers report being mooned by happy groomsmen and given the finger by the bride's brother. "Once I had to bleep the bride's sorority sisters," Bowen recalls. "They got up and sang this cute song that made reference to the male anatomy."
What will come of all of this, of the hours of footage, the images inevitably ranging from solemn to silly? It depends. Like any other product in the bridal biz, a video can be whatever a couple is willing to pay for.
In most of America, the Society of Professional Videographers reports, an unedited tape of the ceremony, shot by a single camera, remains the norm. In metropolitan areas like this one, such an unsophisticated approach is already passe'.
Even a part-timer like Victor Galladora of All Your Memories, a Montgomery County police officer when he's not taping social events, has learned to kick off his edited wedding videos ($550 for two copies) with a montage of still photos of the bride and groom. Ventures in Video, based in McLean, will add The Interview, in which the bride and groom talk about one another (with appropriate mooniness, presumably), to any of its video packages for an additional $250. At the high end, Michael Brazda's MJB Productions of Vienna charges $1,500 to $2,500, depending on how many cameras and special effects are requested.
Suburban Video's prices vary according to whether it's shooting only the ceremony or the whole shebang, and whether the couple orders a 10- to 15-minute "best of" reel (with musical soundtrack) in addition to the edited "long version" with natural audio. "The long version is too much," Bowen explains. "The mom will sit there and watch and cry, but no one else will." Silver and Trauberman have ordered 6 1/2 hours of coverage, resulting in an hour-and-50-minute tape of the event, plus the highlight reel. Their tapes will arrive in white leather boxes embossed with "Our Wedding Memories" and the couple's names, along with a bill for $1,895.
And remarkable documents they are too, these finished products. The best-of reels, in particular, bear a certain resemblance to MTV videos or to those up-close-and-personal bios of athletes. Bowen's got something like $117,000 in computerized editing equipment at his Silver Spring HQ, including the kind of special-effects generators that only Hollywood production houses had a decade ago. Wipes and dissolves, images that tumble into the picture and then spin out -- these are not home movies. They're much glitzier. They're television.
Before heading for the synagogue tonight, Bowen had screened one of his recent wedvid epics, "The Wedding of Larry and Jodi." It began with a montage of 30 or 40 photos of the much younger Larry and Jodi, one dissolving into the next, baby snapshots through commencement photos, "so they grow up together," Bowen explained. Then rehearsal footage in quick-cut, five-second snippets as Diana Ross and Lionel Richie schmaltzed through "Endless Love" on the soundtrack. Followed by freeze frames of the parents and grandparents being seated, "because we can make it go faster and get to the good stuff."
The picture turned into little squares of color -- a "mosaic," it's called. The soundtrack switched to a livelier Al Jarreau number. The bride and groom danced the first dance in slow-motion; "it adds dramatic effect," Bowen said. A "paint" (it made the image look like a drawing) ended the reception footage, followed by an "end montage" of honeymoon snapshots.
The Silver-Trauberman best-of tape will be more or less like that. Bowen has been ricocheting around the Four Seasons, shooting the first dance, the father of the bride's welcome, the best man's and maid of honor's toasts. Bowen's camera hand is getting cramped, but the tape winds on.
He catches a grandmother and her sister doing a chorus line kick as the 17-piece orchestra swings into "Mack the Knife." He interviews a few selected friends and relatives, waving, weeping and telling jokes ("We had a great time. Sorry there wasn't anything much to eat"). He shoots bouquet-tossing, the Viennese dessert table "before people come up and destroy it," the whole crowd dancing the hora and lifting the bride and groom and their parents up in chairs over the dancers' heads. By midnight, Bowen's got blisters.
"Lots of times, we do an over-the-threshold shot," he says. "He picks her up and carries her in and we see a 'Do Not Disturb' sign." Very Irene Dunne. This time, luckily, the bride asked that Suburban Video conclude its efforts with shots of the last dance. THERE IS A DISSERTATION AWAITING AN author here. The videographers who've helped propel this shift in wedding documentation are too busy editing the footage and pocketing the fees to probe the reasons.
Bowen isn't clear himself why his business has taken off. Big hotel weddings like this one cost so much that his fee barely registers, but less-free-spending families also hire videographers. (In fact, Bowen has started a subsidiary to handle the lower end of the market).
Couples want keepsakes, of course. They sometimes tell their video men that they can barely focus on their own weddings, amid the details and the hubbub, and welcome the chance to replay them later. They say they want a record of Aunt Minnie and Uncle Zeke, especially if they're elderly and may not be around a few years later. They want friends and relatives who couldn't attend to see what they missed.
But those purposes can also be accomplished without strobe lighting and slo-mo effects. There's something else afoot here, a connection with the small screen on which all events of importance in America -- from inaugurations to World Series to revelations about the assailants of J.R. and Laura Palmer -- are shown. If it really matters, it's on television. Now, "The Wedding of Patty and Jeffrey" can be on television too.
Brides and grooms are stars, anyway, the generators and recipients of intense, extended fuss-making. Weddings (which now routinely include applause, comedy-routine toasts, makeup artists and other staples of show biz) focus more attention on them than most grown-ups are likely to receive at any other time in their lives. Why not give it the same video treatment as a playoff game or Paula Abdul's latest release?
Why not, in fact, not only record this supposed highlight of one's life, but improve upon it? Eventually, the video probably blurs with reality sufficiently that what's on the tape is what's remembered: Things can be rearranged, feuding cousins eliminated, mistakes edited out. Conversely -- this must be part of the appeal -- the event can be enhanced.
Bill Bowen does it all the time with his MX12 audio mixer, his Newtek Video Toaster and his AG7500A Panasonic editing system. They allow him to add "dramatic flair. You can take an ordinary wedding, where nothing really out of the usual happens, combine it with some powerful music, some cool effects and freeze frames, and all of a sudden the wedding looks incredible."
Weeks later, years later, a couple can haul out the white leather box and share "Our Wedding Memories," which, thanks to Suburban Video, may seem even groovier to replay than to have experienced.
"They want people looking at it to say, 'Wow!' " Bowen says. " 'You had the wedding.' " Paula Span, a writer for The Post's Style section, last wrote for the Magazine about fashion buying at the Paris shows.